A UX case study of the development of a combat tool for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons



Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is the most popular tabletop RPG (Role Playing Game) in the world. Combat, however, can often cause gameplay to slow down, thus reducing the fun and keeping players from the roleplay. My design challenge was to design an app that increases the efficiency of gameplay without leading to distraction or disengagement from the game itself. In order to solve this problem, I adopted a design thinking approach focused on understanding my user and testing against current market incumbents. As the head researcher and sole designer, it was my job to ensure the project was completed within its four-month time frame while still enduring enough testing and iteration.


Phase 1 - Empathize

As a Dungeons & Dragons player and Dungeon Master, I knew going into this challenge that there are inefficiencies and problems within the system. I had my own assumptions of what those were, but I needed to validate whether my assumptions were correct.

As part of the empathy phase of design, I conducted two major pieces of User Research: the first was a large scale survey of players and Dungeon Masters, followed by a series of user interviews. The scale of this research involved approximately 400 different users. The survey, as well as the interviews, served to create the basis for my user persona and my understanding of my potential user.

 The results of the initial survey showed that approximately 60% of respondents preferred roleplay to all other portions of the game (ie. combat, socialization, comedy etc.) with combat ranking the lowest at a mere 7% of presented options. Additionally 25% of players identified a variation of combat and pacing as core issues within the game, with another 15% citing issues with the communication of rules and player distraction/immersion.

These results were largely mimicked in interviews, with a further 60% of interview participants identifying combat mechanics, immersion, and pacing as their primary problems with the issue. Interestingly many have resorted to fundamentally changing the rules to attempt to solve these problems in a process known as “homebrewing” and a variety of other users observed online have taken to creating cheat sheets for action options or building DiY initiative trackers out of rulers and paper markers.


Phase 2 - Define

In the defining phase, I took a closer look at the user responses and developed the problem statement which would serve as the basis for my design and the challenges it would need to endure.

The two largest core issues that were found with combat when interviewing and surveying participants were pacing and placer disengagement; however, these issues are tied together and are the result of multiple smaller issues that need to be addressed. These issues were identified, through qualitative interviews, as the following: poor communication of game mechanics and challenges within the management of combat results, and turn order. Fundamentally, players become disengaged when distracted or are left for extended periods of time with no options to act. These opportunities for distraction and disengagement are easily presented in combat due to poor pacing, which is caused by poor communication of available game mechanics and the challenges presented by handling combat results. These factors developed my final problem statement:

“Players of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons find combat to be slow, and lack understanding of the options available to them. The solution should better communicate options in combat while also increasing the pace of gameplay without negatively impacting other aspects of play."


Phase 3 - Ideate

In the ideation process, I began by brainstorming possible solutions to this problem looking at both digital and analogue solutions. Initial ideas ranged from apps to analogue initiative tracking tools and redesigned whiteboard-style character sheets. I also considered options such as an AR game board for improved player immersion during combat. 

In order to better simplify ideas and cut through to the best possible solution, I began a wide-scale search of all tools currently on the market. AR and VR options for gameplay are currently being explored with little success with many attempting to tackle the current online play market which is prevalent on Roll 20, Discord, and Tabletop Simulator. There are also a variety of character sheet apps, dice rollers and initiative lists available on both Android and Apple app stores. The most prevalent tool currently on the market, however, is a first-party supported web-based platform named D&D Beyond. D&D Beyond primarily focuses on character sheet management and additionally serves as a digital marketplace for official books. None of these options currently solve our problem - though some analogue tools are certainly trying with a variety of manual initiative trackers and status/health markers for miniatures available online.

After much deliberation over options to pursue and incumbent competitors, it became clear that a digital tool would be the best option. This was chosen for a variety of reasons: primarily usability, feasibility, and affordability. When speaking to Dungeon Masters, several expressed concern that combat management is complex enough already, and that additional analogue tools would only complicate matters. Additionally, digitally integrated tools would be able to leverage the power of the devices to not only do mathematical calculations for the DMs but link users together within campaigns automating communications and calculations between users increasing usability for DMs and players. Our users also consider money to be a barrier to entry, with more than 50% living on less than $40,000 per year - something that was a prevalent concern with regards to D&D Beyond's price point and the price point of many analogue tools. As such, it is important that the solution be affordable to users - something the digital scalable market can offer that analogue tools cannot. With this decision made, the rest of the ideation process came together with a core idea:

A native digital tool that replaces analogue character sheets, featuring automated initiative tracking, cross-user connection within campaigns, and a combat menu that clearly communicates all combat options. 


Stages 4 & 5 - Prototyping & Testing

The prototype has since endured four iterations.

Initial designs featured note-taking, cross player messaging, and a more traditional character sheet. User feedback within the test phase, however, repeatedly demonstrated that users found initial designs to be over-complicated, difficult to learn, and included a variety of unnecessary features which may lead to distraction at the table. In light of this feedback, I decided to pare back the design, removing unnecessary features and settling upon a more minimalistic design. In doing so, we could increase useability and learnability while reducing the odds of distraction and improve efficiency within the app.

After significant usability testing, we decided to do a comparison test between the pared-back app, an analogue Character Sheet and D&D Beyond. This was done by running two observed three hour playtests each made up of 4 participants (3 players and a DM) playing through the Delian tomb adventure. At each hour mark, the players would switch to a different method of play and provide information during a brief interview on the past hour. At the end of the three hours, a group discussion was held to determine the final results. In each study, players ranked Role Initiative above D&D Beyond citing the app as less distracting, more efficient, and faster to learn. In the completion of this study, the app hit all key metrics.

In Combat Screen
In Combat Screen
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Out of Combat Screen
Out of Combat Screen
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Roll to Hit Screen
Roll to Hit Screen
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Next Steps

Now that initial prototyping is complete, the app is currently seeking developers to begin construction of the alpha client backend and front end. An additional prototype is also in the process of being made and tested for the DM facing portion of the project, as currently only the player facing portion has undergone testing.